Researcher helps protect swans in lower Coeur d’Alene river basin

Washington State University veterinarian Marcie Logsdon is part of an Environmental Protection Agency-led research team that is collecting tundra swan feces and sediment in the Lower Coeur d’Alene River Basin in an effort to monitor levels of deadly lead exposure in the birds’ natural environment.

According to Idaho Fish and Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an average of 50–60 swans die annually from lead exposure in the basin, but this has been an especially rough year for the species, as more than 300 have died from suspected lead poisoning. 

“Lead contamination in and around Lake Coeur d’Alene has been an issue for quite a while stemming from some of the older mining practices mostly,” Logsdon said. “A lot of this lead ends up down in the silt and mud where it can be really easy to want to forget about it, but there are a lot of animals that spend time down at that level.” 

Logsdon is getting some unique firsthand experience as part of the project.

On a frigid night in March, she could hear the faint sound of an airboat engine as she waited in the dark along the shore of Lake Coeur d’Alene.

She and her EPA collaborators readied as the engine noise grew closer and the boat slid into the shoreline. Onboard were a handful of tundra swans they hope will help in the development of new and easier methods of tracking long-term trends in waterfowl health and exposure to lead-contaminated sediments.

The team quickly went to work, collecting blood, feces and swab samples, in addition to placing neck collars and leg bands on all the animals and fitting some with GPS collars to track migration and travel patterns, before the birds were released.

It was a rare chance for Logsdon, an exotics and wildlife veterinarian at WSU’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital, to be in the field. While the project has been in the works for several years, Logsdon only recently became involved after being approached to help in the development of research protocol and for veterinary advice. She was later invited to participate in the fieldwork. 

“Opportunities like this, I really treasure them. It is great to get out and interact with animals on a population level and be able to spend time with people who are doing active and important science,” Logsdon said. “One of my professors would call them million-dollar days — I think that sums it up pretty nicely.”

The study, headed by EPA toxicologist Dr. Mark Jankowski, took place over four nights in early March and was part of a project in which the EPA is collaborating with Idaho Fish and Game, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. The researchers are investigating ways to measure lead exposure by collecting sediment and swan feces where swans are observed foraging in wetlands and then comparing them to swan blood lead levels at uncontaminated and contaminated locations. Future wetland monitoring of sediments and swan feces, which is much easier to collect, would then be used to determine waterfowl health linked to exposures at specific wetlands and throughout the basin. 

All waterfowl are affected by the contaminated sediment, but swans are at particular risk because of their feeding habits in which they root around in marsh bottoms mainly in search of rooted vegetation. 

“These tundra swans come through on their annual migration route between California and Alaska and they are doing a lot of feeding in these contaminated areas, and every year there are a large number of swans that die from lead toxicity in this area,” Logsdon said. “As they are foraging, they are going to be taking in a small amount of dirt, and that usually doesn’t cause any problems — it just passes right through. It causes a problem when it has lead in it.”

Logsdon said the research will hopefully benefit both wildlife and humans. 

“Studies monitoring indicator species such as tundra swans are important because they reflect the health of our shared environment,” she said. “Lead exposure isn’t good for any species, including humans.”

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